Pants On Fire

A decade before a real sociopath who moonlighted as an actor on Orange County stages made national news by brutally murdering two people, the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. staged Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of a Love, a relentlessly brutal play, albeit with a sharply honed comic edge, about a serial killer stalking lonely people on the fringes of Edmonton society.

So the arrival of a new Fraser play, this time on the boards at the Monkey Wrench Collective, brings with it a certain expectation—or perhaps the right word is apprehension for those who tend to shrink from visceral, sex-and-violence-saturated theater.

But Fraser’s True Love Lies, while containing its fair share of sexual situations and one intense beating, is anything but brutal or seedy. It is a beautifully rendered family drama that, in the hands of director (and OC Weekly arts contributor) Dave Barton, feels keenly empathetic and sincere.

Not that True Love Lies resembles anything close to an ABC After School Special. The five-character play involves a husband and wife who’ve been married for 20 years; their sexually adventurous 20-year-old daughter, Madison (Sabrina Zellars); and their confused teenage son, Royce (Christopher Basile). The fifth character and catalyst for this admittedly unstable nuclear family’s unraveling is David, a successful restaurateur and world traveler who has returned to open his latest eatery in the city where he used to live.

Unfortunately, it’s also the city where David (Rick Kopps) and our family’s father, Kane (Anthony B. Cohen), were involved in a two-year relationship shortly before Kane married his wife, Carolyn (Jill Cary Martin).

David’s return rips open a 20-year wound in Carolyn and sends the two children into a spiral of confusion about their father’s hidden past and cloudy present. Kane, meanwhile, is forced into a reactive stance as he watches the flesh-and-blood skeleton of earlier days upend the family he has worked so hard to keep together.

The cast is uniformly excellent, able to navigate the play’s deeper, emotionally roiling waters along with the wisecracking, superficial-seeming dialogue on its surface.

Barton moves the action briskly, using the Monkey Wrench’s highly intimate space to full effect. And there’s a wonderfully effective visual touch that may or may not be in Fraser’s script. This is a play about successful urbanites set mostly in an upper-middle-class family’s kitchen and an upscale restaurant. Ample food and alcohol are ingested, but throughout the two-hour-long play, all the action is mimicked. Plates, glasses and cutlery are everywhere, but no food or drink is in sight.

That’s until the play’s final image, when the two characters whose relationship disrupts everything finally meet alone. For the first time, real food is on the plates, real wine is in the glasses. It’s a moment already built into the scene, but the physical image further underscores that while this play touches on the complicated relationship between five troubled characters, the most authentic relationship is one that, apparently, ended 20 years ago.

True Love Lies doesn’t say anything new about human relationships, sexual or otherwise. They’re just hard. Always have been, always will be, whether that relationship is between two lovers, a husband and wife, or parents and children. Like anything meant to last, they must be built brick by brick and worked on to prevent from collapsing. But when those bricks are built on a suspect foundation, as they are in the marriage in True Love Lies, it doesn’t take much to topple them.

There are no black hats or white hats in this play, just people struggling for something authentic in a world filled with disappointments and distractions. People who choose, for whatever reason, to play certain roles at certain times because they desperately need to reconcile their private passions with social norms. Decisions are chosen, compromises made and, on some level, fingers are crossed in hopes that the latest costume is the one that will fit the best for the longest time.

A key line illustrating that comes early in the play, when the job-seeking Madison tells her mother she’s changing her top for her latest interview. Her mother asks why, and Madison replies, “Adulthood involves way too many different outfits.”

For sure.

True Love Lies at Monkey Wrench Collective, 204 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 253-4141; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Aug. 14. $10-$20.

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